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UCHealth launches new virtual respiratory therapist program

The new position will focus on getting patients off of ventilators sooner.

AURORA, Colo. — Respiratory therapists are in high demand. Many of them burned out and left the industry during the pandemic, according to UCHealth. Enrollment in the field has also dropped 27 percent since 2010, according to the National Board of Respiratory Care.

To meet the need of their patients, UCHealth created a virtual respiratory therapist (vRT), to provide a new layer of support for patient care. UCHealth says a new vRT will focus on getting patients off ventilators sooner.

"The longer a patients is on mechanical ventilation, the higher the risks of mortality or other infections or other things like that," said Candice Kmetz-Parkinson, director of respiratory therapy at UCHealth.  "We obviously want to get our patients off the mechanical ventilator as soon as possible."

The new role will be a way to provide a new layer of support for patient care on top of the care nurses provide. A licensed respiratory therapist is monitoring the data of all the patients on ventilators in what looks like a virtual command center.

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"They can kind of be the eyes in the sky at a 30-thousand-foot view. Helping the people who are boots on the ground caring for our patients," said Kmetz-Parkinson. "Figure out how to prioritize, what to prioritize, and how to make sure that we are providing the most data-based care that we can."

Under the new system, if a patient needs to have a respirator cleaned or have settings adjusted, they can alert staff in the hospitals to make those changes. A way of streamlining the workflow and helping get patients off of ventilators faster. 

"We can literally see everything that is going on with every patient," Kmetz-Parkinson said. "In a multitude of different screens that help them prioritize, oh this doesn't look right, we need to see if there is someone who can go do something with that."

The respiratory therapists rotate from the floor to the virtual room. They are monitoring 35 to 40 patients at any one time but that number could jump to 60 patients during flu season or when COVID-19 cases surge. 

"With the patients that were of higher acuity, they are the ones that were being focused on," said Kmetz-Parkinson. "And so the patients that were doing better. Trying to figure out, how we can go ahead and utilize other job roles, other people, to help with getting these people, getting them off the ventilator when they are ready."

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